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The Inconvenient Truth about Prioritizing at Work

by | Dec 4, 2023 | Productivity

Prioritization is one of the most important topics under the umbrella of Time Management. It always surprises me to see how many capable, intelligent professionals still struggle with it. Recently, I got curious about why, and the answer surprised me even more.

Typically, the problem is not that people don’t know how to prioritize; it’s that they simply expect there MUST be a better way. They’re familiar with the most popular methods (like the Eisenhower Matrix, for example), but it just doesn’t feel like enough. They want a clearer, more precise answer. They want a formula to determine with 100% certainty exactly what they should do and in what order.

Sadly, that’s just not the way it works. Prioritization is always a judgement call. It’s subjective, which is what makes it dangerous. Even the popular tools require you to make decisions regarding things like the relative importance of work, the complexity, the urgency, the impact, and the effort required. These things are not objective facts; how you rate any particular quality may be different from how others rate them.

Prioritization requires a wide perspective. You need to clearly see everything vying for your attention and understand the various other things impacting (and impacted by) your work. For this reason, I always like to remind people that prioritization at work should be a collaborative exercise, ideally with your direct supervisor/manager. Your perspective and theirs combined will create the most comprehensive view for making prioritization decisions.

Ultimately, your goal is to understand what must be done vs. what could be done vs. what should be done. Your mission is to determine what to say “yes” to, what to say “no” to, and what to say “not now or not yet” to. Only with a deep understanding of the full landscape can you make intelligent decisions.

If there’s one piece of advice I can offer professionals regarding prioritization it’s this: Stop expecting an easy answer and stop trying to do it alone. (Okay, that’s two pieces of advice.)

The answers are rarely going to be straightforward. You will almost always have too many “highly important and highly urgent” priorities to manage. You will likely never have clear, certain answers; you will have to take educated risks. Apply your best critical thinking to the task and have someone else double-check your rationale. That’s the best you can do.

Prioritization is like so many things in the modern workplace—it’s an imprecise art. The more you practice, the more you learn. Every “mistake” makes you smarter. That’s of little consolation in the moment, when you’re suffering the consequences of mistakes, but it’s still true.

If you need some help building those prioritization muscles, consider joining the next Task & Time Management Learning Lab. Learn more and sign up here.

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About the Author

Chrissy Scivicque is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and certified Professional Career Manager (PCM). She is an author, in-demand presenter and international speaker known for engaging, entertaining, educating and empowering audiences of all sizes and backgrounds. Learn more here.

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